Why writing what you know doesn’t work

“Write what you know!” is not only the most useless piece of fiction writing advice I ever received, but for decades it prevented me from writing anything at all.

Instead of writing what you know, let me show you what your readers really crave.  Something that, uniquely, only you can provide.

For years, even though I had masses of ideas circulating in my head, I never wrote anything, because I thought I didn’t know anything worth writing about.  Later when I did know stuff, it was so boring even I didn’t even want to read it.

The story that changed everything.

I’m a great fan of Wattpad.com.  It’s a writing platform where youngsters publish, comment, encourage, and critique each other’s stories.  Anyway, there was this one story about domestic abuse that was badly written, contained bad spelling, and had hopeless grammar.  The plot was pretty lame too, but I was immediately captivated.

The central character, by necessity, had one public persona and one private persona, which was intriguing enough, but the things that really drew me in were the emotions.  It was clear this young writer had personally experienced the difficult and horrific things her protagonist went through:  she knew what she was writing about.

As the story unfolded and eventually came to a stuttering standstill, we got to know a little bit more about the author herself.  It became clear she was still trapped in some of the difficulties her protagonist had left behind, and one day she too hoped to find the courage to escape, just like her heroine.

The story, however, was just a story.  The author had deliberately chosen a setting, characters, family members, protagonist and a villain that would in no way identify her, her situation, or anyone remotely connected to her.  The only things of the author that remained in the story were her emotions and experiences, and the story was perhaps all the more powerful because of that.

That young author on Wattpad taught me a valuable lesson that opened the floodgates of my own creativity.  Inadvertently, she had done what all good writers do: she wrote from her own emotional experience, about things she had known.

Don’t write what you know; write what you’ve known.
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Everyone has a story to tell, right?

True, but mostly it’s in a mundane setting with boring characters and a story line that winds and rambles until it makes some sort of sense to the protagonist, but not necessarily anyone else.

However, take the experiences you have known, the dilemmas you have struggled with, the hopes and fears you have faced, and the emotions you have experienced, put them into a story and you can create something special.

The best stories, the ones that grab us, affect us, and change us, are the ones that contain the heart and soul, and emotions, of the author:  where the author writes, in story form, what they have known.  In that sense, all stories are about the human condition, and all stories are autobiographical.

I hope that young author, who taught me a valuable lesson about my craft, did somehow find the courage to escape her situation.  Because, stories, if they contain real emotions and experiences, are powerful, and can change us.  I like to think that perhaps she was changed by her own stories.

Here is how you construct a compelling story.

  • Choose an interesting setting/time period/place/genre.
  • Populate the setting with a cast of memorable and intriguing characters.
  • Choose an exciting plot and decide how it will end.
  • Choose an emotional issue/problem from your life to be the overall theme of your story – this is how your protagonist(s) will change and develop emotionally over the course of the story.
  • Identify the exact opposite issues/problem from the main theme – this is how your antagonist(s) will change emotionally over the course of the story. I have found the books, “The Emotion Thesaurus” and “The Negative Trait Thesaurus,” both by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, to be very useful at this point.
  • To make an interesting story, and enable you to explore the issue emotionally through your main character(s), you must prevent the plot progressing smoothly (and boringly) by exaggerating the obstacles and difficulties you have faced in relation to that issue. Then throw in a load of even more extreme, made up, obstacles for your protagonist(s) to overcome.  The obstacles should increase in difficulty as the story progresses, which creates the story.
  • Finally, steer your story to your chosen conclusion, which may or may not resemble the outcome you yourself had from the main issue/problem or may be an extreme version.

Suddenly you have a story that is not only unique to you and the emotional life experience you have known, but everyone wants to read it.  Why?  Because, regardless of everything that is made up (fake) about the story, the emotions and experiences are still real:  they feel real because you have known them, and readers connect with you for that reason.  You are still telling a human story, your story, just through different characters and in a different setting.

Okay, so it’s no where near as easy to do well as I make it sound, and Hemingway is probably closer to the truth: to write well you do need to bleed emotionally, because is can be a painful process as well as an exhilarating one.  The best writers can take an issue and open it up through fiction in a way that may be impossible through any other means.

So remember, to create a good story, don’t write what you know; write what you have known.

Happy (or at least productive) writing.  Nick.

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One thought on “Why writing what you know doesn’t work”

  1. You are so right about this Nick and it was interesting to read the story behind this post.Your bullet points are very useful reminders and I endorse your recommendation for the Emotion Thesaurus and Negative Trait Thesaurus. Thanks for sharing these important points.

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